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Lao Tzu is remembered as the first philosopher of Taoism. He is often cited
as a contributor to, if not the author of, the Tao-te Ching, the basic
philosophical discourse on Taoism. His life is shrouded in mystery and legend,
but it is generally accepted that he was active sometime in the early sixth
century B.C. and served as a resident scholar, called a shih, at the
royal court of the Shou. By the seventh century A.D. he was worshipped as an
imperial ancestor by the T'ang and regarded by commoners as the equivalent of
a Western saint, or demigod. Legend says that an aged Lao Tzu upbraided a young
and overconfident Confucius and that the young man later compared Lao Tzu to
a dragon rising in the sky, riding on the winds and clouds.
Taoism, the philosophy of Lao Tzu, posits the existence of an ultimate reality,
beyond the description of words, that is the moving force of the universe. Corruption
and degradation occur in the perceived world when objects and men move in opposition
to this primal force, called the Way, or Tao. The object of the Taoist is to
meditate on this ultimate reality in order to understand its direction and to
lead a life in conformity with nature. Such a life of serene contemplation and
material simplicity stands in marked contrast to the Confucian life of active
public service. Nonetheless, Confucianists regard Lao Tzu as an important philosopher
and even a contributor to their own philosophy.
Lao Tzu's work on Taoism is primarily an instruction for rulers. It says, for
example, that the rule of the prince should go unnoticed by his subjects if
he rules in conformity with the way of the universe. This ancient philosophy
invites comparison with Adam Smith's "invisible hand," but the Tao
is largely spiritual rather than material in focus. Nevertheless, Lao Tzu did
argue that a people ruled lightly in accordance with the Tao will become peaceful
and prosperous. Moreover, the Tao says that concerns about government and its
intrusiveness are common to all peoples and all times.
Taoism spread over much of Asia and is thought by some to have had a small
influence on the Buddha through a fertile exchange with Hinduism in India. Before
the Cultural Revolution, Taoism, along with Confucianism and Buddhism, was considered
one of the three primary intellectual forces shaping Chinese thought.
Works by the Author
Tze, Lao. The Wisdom of Laotze. Translated by Lin Yutang. New York:
The Modern Library, 1948.
Works about the Author
Robert A. Ballou, Friederich Spiegelberg, and Horace L. Friess, eds. The
Bible of The World. Edited by Robert A. Ballou, Friedrich Spiegelberg,
and Horace L. Friess. New York: The Viking Press, 1939.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.